HUNDREDS of people with mental health problems have had their lives improved through an art therapy project.

The NetPark Wellbeing Project launched in January 2016 by Southend Borough Council and arts and culture group Metal.

Emma Mills is the mental wellbeing co-ordinator and trained art psychotherapist who embarked on an innovative project to get sufferers involved in art and technology.

Participants take part in a 12 week course where they spend time in the park taking photos and then alter the images using digital technology.

The project is based at the Metal Art School in Chalkwell Park and has worked with more than 500 people living with mental health concerns.

Emma has been nominated for the 2017 Advancing Healthcare Awards for her ground-breaking methods in Southend which has seen many of the participants return to work or volunteer.

Of the participants involved 84 per cent said self confidence improved, 50 per cent visited the GP less, 81 per cent said their symptoms of social isolation improved and 72 per cent said symptoms of anxiety ,depression and stress had improved.

She says: "The aim of this project has been to get disengaged people back to being part of the community and make them feel included.

"Lots of people avoid art because they think they're not good at it, but in art therapy it doesn't matter if you are 'good' or not. The repetitive motion of colouring in, for instance, is proven to calm the mind and losing yourself in any forms art work is very mindful and meditative."

The project works with people living with mental illness and depression, people living with learning difficulties and people living with dementia.

Emma says: "The course combines art and technology, which is quite a new way to work with mental health sufferers using art therapy. During the 12 week course they create a six part story. They walked around the park taking photos and then we showed them how to layer digital art on top and then we took away the photo underneath."

Participants have been able to express painful feelings and memories through their work.

"In art therapy we tend to work in metaphors because real life is too hard to deal with. People can express their feelings and the things that have happened to them without having to say the words.

"One man had an adult son who died. His work showed part of the image was in grey then gradually colours start to come back which illustrates that it is possible to have bits of joy after something like that happens. He was able to remember the good parts of being a father and memories of his son."

The people who took part in the project benefitted from the experience.

Emma says: "I get them to complete a wellbeing questionnaire at the start and at the end and it proved to reduce depression and anxiety and reduce visits to the GP."

The project was originally geared towards people with low level mental health problems but when they sent out the flyers they had a huge response from people with dementia.

"It is not something we had anticipated but it showed they was a real need to do something to get people with dementia engaged with the community and to show they are still valuable."

The Garden of Remember was born out of this need and Emma bid for and NHS grant to create an app with the aim to engage dementia suffers.

With the £20,000 they created the Garden of Remember app which was launched in March and is free to download on iTunes.

This project saw them enlist two men with dementia who walked around Chalkwell Park with children from Westborough Junior School.

Emma says: "We recorded their conversation. The men spoke about their time during the war and being young children. The school children said that that must have been exciting but they said no it hadn't, and spoke about 'units' in the sky that dropped with a 'bang' because they forgot the words 'plane' and 'bombs'. These gaps in the conversation gave it a fantastical quality and the children tried to guess the words and fill in the gaps. We put the words together and hired a professional illustrator to bring it all together."

People who download the app can walk around Chalkwell Park and experience the memories and conversation as they walk around.

Both legs of the project have proven to be a success in helping people with mental health problems and dementia.

Artists Elsa James, Joe Magee, Alistair Gentry and Jack Hurst worked with Tony, Alan, Allan, Sheila, Joy and Eddie, who are living with dementia, worked together on the projects as well as the students from Westborough Junior School

"Many of the people who take part in the project then go onto volunteer. Forty per cent volunteer or return to work. It has proved that it works and is a lot less expensive than people being on antidepressants and people being out of work.

"I think it was really brave and innovative of Southend Borough Council to get in a project like this during a time of cuts. It takes thinking outside the box but it saves money and is cheaper. I would like to thank the wonderful volunteers who we couldn’t run without, SAVs for helping to get us recruit volunteers, SBC, Metal, NHS England for their support with dementia App, the artist Elsa James who oversaw app being produced."

Emma has been contracted to work on the project for another year where she hopes to continue to work with and help people most in need in Southend.

"I have learnt so much from this project and I use digital art more now. I recently worked with teenagers from Seetec who were completely disengaged from learning and their self-esteem was so low they thought they were rubbish at everything. But give them an iPad and framework to create a story and they are away."

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